Sloppy, slow and subdued. The hangover of a busy international break loomed large over City as they struggled to dispatch an out of form Crystal Palace.
There were a host of changes to the usual City eleven that we have come to expect from Pep, with Silva, Stones, Gündogan and Zabaleta being replaced by Nolito and the returning trio of Kompany, Sagna and Touré, the latter fresh from his recent exile.
Crystal Palace offered no such surprises with their usual combination of Benteke and a skilled pair of wingers in Zaha and Townsend being their main outlets in attack.
Overall, the game lacked quality for extended periods. Palace can take some credit for this as they consistently looked to press high up the pitch and disrupt City’s build up play before dropping into a more passive deeper block. They did this mainly through strong man orientations as Puncheon would press a centre back (or look to mark a player if Benteke was leading the press) whilst the wingers as well as Cabaye and McArthur looked to mark all available passing options and force long balls for their centre halves to clean up. This combined with an unusually low standard of passing from almost everyone in blue lead to large passages of play (particularly in the first half) that were predominantly transitional. This will have angered and concerned Pep as his side cannot control the flow and counter attacks of the opposition if they are relinquishing the ball before they can assume positions to defend against those moments. The first real extended spell of possession in the Palace half also resulted in the first clear chance of the game as Kolarov played a wonderful ball across the six yard box that Agüero really should have used his head to score. Moments likes this were few and far between for the whole match (until Silva was introduced) and it showed as the two goals City scored did not come as a reward for good play, rather they punished poor awareness from the Palace defence.
Kompany Out Of Sync
This may be a slightly controversial opinion, but I really don’t think Kompany is adapting very well to Pep’s style of play. Too often he lacks the composure to try and find a shorter pass to a team-mate, often playing long expansive passes when the situation neither demands it or presents it as a viable option. Also, he is very rarely available to receive the ball and his positioning can sometimes prevent escape passes to the full backs from being available to Bravo. Yes, this is early doors and his performances may be being hindered by niggling injuries but he just looks out of place whenever he is thrust into the team. I think the injury he sustained today partly highlights the issues he is having: his awareness of his team-mates is lacking. He doesn’t check to see that Bravo is coming to collect the ball – his entire focus is on Puncheon. Whilst this is a good thing in certain scenarios this kind of tunnel vision hinders City’s build up and unfortunately lead to him picking up a needless injury.
Pep is a man of his word, the agent apologised (as did Touré) and the outcast made his return to the starting lineup. The opening 45 minutes suggested an energised Yaya might be making a return as he looked to be busy and active without the ball, pressing in a way that City fans haven’t seen for quite sometime.
Actions such as the above were frequent from Touré during the first half as the casual jogging pace he became known for defending at was replaced with frequent sprints and an eagerness to close down passing options in the opposition half. It was great to see and it was a big part of the reason that Palace barely threatened during the opening stages as his physical presence reduced their ability to counter attack through the middle and forced them into hopeful balls towards Zaha in particular.
Unfortunately, after he scored the aggression and purpose in his defensive actions greatly diminished. Was it him switching off mentally or was it due to his fitness levels being below par? I’d go with the former. After all, he does have previous. I might be being overly harsh, but especially in the second half it felt as if he was playing at walking pace when compared to his efforts in the first 38 minutes. If Pep can coax that same level of energy and aggression out of him for full games on a consistent basis then the Ivorian can still be a major player for City this year.
Sterling & De Bruyne’s Dynamic
Something I have noticed increasingly over the last few games is the developing relationship between Sterling and De Bruyne. They constantly rotate their positions allowing them to disrupt opposition defences as the Premier League’s preference for man oriented defensive schemes means there is confusion about who should track which player and it is bringing out the best in their skill sets. De Bruyne is being afforded time and space to whip dangerous crosses into the box and it is a real weapon for City as the movement of Agüero across defenders means that chances will always be created from these situations. Moreover, with the rotation in positions causing a brief delay in reaction from the defense it means that when Sterling attacks with his dribbles they becomes more effective as he is able to gather momentum before the defenders can even start to move. These rotations and attacking variability really caused Palace a lot of problems after they equalised as the speed and purpose of the movements increased. Hopefully this is a relationship that Pep can further refine and cultivate as I’m sure it will be a fruitful one.
Three points is the most important takeaway from today’s game. It is somewhat of a relief to see City come away with a win from a game in which they struggled, as that has been a rare occurrence lately. Also, there is still hope for Yaya to be an important part of the team – a notion that seemed ludicrous only a few weeks ago.
“These are the kind of wins that bring you titles” – I can already hear Shearer’s analysis in my head.